A decade after the removal of the Taliban government, journalists’ unions and organizations that support open media in Afghanistan, together with Reporters Without Borders, call on the Kabul government and international diplomats to give a clear commitment to freedom of speech and information, as delegates prepare for the second international conference on the country’s future in Bonn next month.
Afghanistan has never had more news outlets, with 200 print media, 44 television stations, 141 radio stations and at least eight news agencies.
On the other hand, in the past decade it has witnessed growing violence against news organizations and journalists.
Unions and organizations that support open media, and Reporters Without Borders, recorded hundreds of cases of such violence between 2001 and 2011. The largest number – 85 – took place in 2009, most of them in the provinces of Kabul, Herat and Helmand.
Some of provinces in the south and east of the country are no-go areas for journalists since they are controlled by the Taliban who restrict journalistic activities.
We believe, and the experience of the past 10 years has proved, that without a free media and without a climate in which journalists can carry out their work in safety, we cannot protect peace, security and freedom.
Never before in Afghanistan’s history have its people had so much free access to information provided by Afghans for Afghans. However, these gains are under daily threat.
Today, the enemies of free speech among the senior ranks of the government in most parts of the country want to abolish this constitutional right that was won by the blood of the people.
A lack of transparency in peace efforts, secret talks with super powers and the concealment of their outcome from the people raise the worrying prospect of a future where democracy and freedom, the cornerstones of permanent peace, are sacrificed for short-term gains based on deals reached behind closed doors.
News organizations are under serious threat, not only from the Taliban who are about to regain power as a result of strategic mistakes by the international military forces and the corruption and incompetence of the government, but also from local and national government officials and some Islamist clerics with ties to the government.
The silence of President Hamid Karzai on the actions of the authorities and organizations that violate freedom of speech and information is a cause of concern.
This is particularly true since Karzai would rather heed the views and advice of fundamentalists and those who do not believe in freedom of speech and information than to listen to journalists’ unions and media organizations.
This leads us to believe that the muzzling of the free press that we see in Afghanistan is part of a plan to prepare for the return to power of the Taliban.
The organizations that want a free and diverse media and Reporters Without Borders believe that peace and coexistence will be achieved only with the full participation of society. In the past decade, bureaucratic decisions and efforts have been carried out in defiance of the people as a result of restrictions on media freedom.
How can corruption, growing poverty, prostitution and bribery be effectively combated without media organizations to keep the people informed?
Censorship and self-censorship imposed by the Taliban, warlords, drug traffickers and government institutions have led to the present state of affairs.
In the past 10 years, the independent media have not succeeded in bringing about any change in the system. It would have been more effective and less costly to have given the media the chance to campaign against corruption, the power of the warlords and drug trafficking and for the rule of law, reform of the judicial system and good governance. It is still not too late.
The use of violence and illegal restrictions, as well as the constant threat of being branded as heretics, have been the main weapons used against journalists in recent times. As organizations that support journalists and the media in Afghanistan, we urge the authorities to put an end to the practice of harassing and discriminating against journalists on the basis of religious belief or racial or tribal affiliation.
In the past decade, Afghan journalists have paid a high price for their activities. Sixteen have been killed and so far no-one has been brought to justice in any of these cases.
The killers of Zakia Zaki, the owner of the radio station Radio Peace, BBC reporter Abdul Samad Rohani, who also worked for the Afghan news agency Pajhwok, and Jawed Ahmad, a freelance journalist who worked for the Canadian network CTV, have not been indentified and punished.
The failure of the Afghan police and judicial authorities to arrest and punish those responsible for these murders casts doubt on the Kabul government’s ability to respect the rule of law.
Sultan Muhammad Munadi and Ahmad Omid Khpalwak were killed by international forces. Although the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force admitted responsibility for Khpalwak’s death, the British military and the Afghan interior ministry have not disclosed the results of their criminal investigation into the killing of Munadi. He was shot dead during an attempt to rescue him and a British journalist from Taliban forces who were holding them hostage. Safeguarding the lives of journalists is the responsibility of both sides in any conflict.
Violence against journalists, particularly women, has been encouraged by the failure to prosecute those responsible. In recent years, women journalists have become increasingly the target of threats from various organizations, particularly the Taliban.
In the towns of Kunduz and Ghazni, the Taliban have threatened women journalists and driven female-owned media organizations out of business. In Kabul, security forces have on many occasions beaten women journalists carrying out their professional activities. Many have been forced to quit their jobs because of social pressure and fears for their safety.
Violence against journalists is carried out in many cases by religious groups that have strong support among Afghan authorities. The Council of Religious Scholars, for example, has blamed journalists and media for the violence rather than the Taliban, terrorists, warlords and drug traffickers.
Some provincial officials threaten media organizations daily. Instead of protecting journalists, security forces detain them without authority and accuse them of spying.
Some warlords and countries such as Pakistan and Iran, whose control of some media organizations allows them to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, are increasingly relaying Taliban propaganda. Free media organizations, faced with the Taliban and the actions of corrupt government officials, are surrounded and forced into silence.
The constitution and media law guarantee freedom of the press but the legislation is not implemented for political reasons. The law should be completed and implemented without delay. Government-owned media organizations should be safe from government interference and their independence observed. Government authorities should respect the right to freedom of information. Drafting a law facilitating access to information should be a priority for the government.
In the past decade, Afghanistan has failed to grasp historic opportunities. Some analysts have predicted Afghanistan’s defeat. Fighting is taking place not only on the front line and in zones of conflict. The Afghan people wage a daily battle for peace and against war and they have the right to be informed.
Conference organisers and participants, as well as the international community, should explicitly undertake to protect the freedom, democracy and rights of the people of Afghanistan.
Freedom of speech, the emancipation of women and respect for human rights are the main challenges in Afghanistan. We must bear in mind that peace cannot be restored without freedom and democracy.
Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan
Association of Free Journalists in Afghanistan
Afghanistan National Journalists Union
Southern Asia Women’s Association in Afghanistan
Reporters Without Borders